The French word "reverence" translates into English as a bow or curtsy. One foot tucked behind the other, the woman bends her knees and lowers her body slowly in respect.
However, in ballet-speak, the word suggests so much more, layered as it is with centuries of stage tradition at the moment that the dancer acknowledges the applause of the audience. The response from the viewers serves as a reward for the years of training, the effort of the night, and the blossoming of talent.
To me, the most glowing representation of "reverence" is the white-tulle-clad ballerina taking a curtain call when she sinks to the floor in grateful appreciation of the bond between her and her fans. She has danced her heart out; they have responded with admiration, communicated by clapping, often accompanied by cheers and flowers.
I began to think about the life of the ballerina as a metaphor for aspects of the lives of the larger sisterhood of women when I attended a performance by American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House last month. The glorious Georgian ballerina Nina Ananiashvili was making her final appearance in America as the lead in "Swan Lake" in the dual roles of Odette, the Swan Queen, and her evil twin, Odile. A reigning ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet, Ms. Ananiashvili has danced as guest artist in ABT's spring season for the past 16 years. [Editor's note: The original version misstated Ananiashvili's nationality.]
My understanding of the meaning of "reverence" and its image in my mind's eye will remain forever framed by the finale of Ananiashvili's farewell.
To say that the evening was historic for the outpourings of affection showered on a beloved performer, even in this era of manic reactions to rock stars in concert, is to diminish the volcanic display at the ballet's ending. Instantly, hordes of people jumped from their seats and rushed to the stage to approach as close to their idol as security allowed. There followed a half-hour of cheering, applause, throwing of bouquets from the audience, reciprocated by curtsies from Ananiashvili and much kissing of hands to the people out front.
She made reverence to the audience, but the deepest one was reserved for Irina Kolpakova, the former prima ballerina of the Kirov Ballet, now a ballet mistress and teacher for ABT. In bowing to a mentor, Ananiashvili was honoring the foundation of ballet, the handing down of technique and experience over the generations.
While watching, I began to wonder how often ordinary women are rewarded in such palpable ways as this extravagant exchange. Most of us do not grow up in such a public spotlight, but we inhabit a stage of sorts throughout our lives, observed first by our families and later by friends and colleagues. But I suspect that few of us have had such tangible feedback to our labors.
Ananiashvili and I had met 20 years earlier, on her first trip to the United States. She was a young soloist with the Bolshoi, arrived in Boston with her partner, Andris Liepa, also a rising star, to perform in impresario Sarah Caldwell's three-week festival, "Making Music Together." The notion of bringing out a company of musicians, opera singers, and dancers was an audacious one in those late Soviet years, before the fall of the Iron Curtain.
As a young critic, assigned to cover the dance portion of the festival, I was given a backstage pass, as well as tickets to the performances so I could watch company class and rehearsals. I was a decade older than Nina but we became friends. She was lovely and shy, largely unknown in the West although she had already won three gold medals at international dance competitions. I keep a souvenir photo of the two of us from that year, both smiling at having made a friend from another culture. We met again several years later when she returned to Boston to appear in the Boston Ballet's "glasnost" "Swan Lake," the last time our paths would cross on a personal level. I continued to watch her performances over the years with ABT and, needless to say, I was thrilled to attend her final "Swan Lake" in New York.
Now that the lights have dimmed at the opera house and the huge gold curtain has closed, Ananiashvili – also wife, mother, and recently appointed artistic director of the Georgian State Ballet – moves on to the next part of her life. Like all women leaving girlhood behind, she must create a new persona to play a different role on another stage. But I suspect, when she is alone and quiet, she might recall turning in a circle of light, center stage, then bowing in reverence at ballet's end.